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A Festival of Opposing Forces: Interview with R A Villanueva

R A Villanueva’s upcoming Summer workshop, ‘A Festival of Opposing Forces’, will be a celebration of unlike things, thinking about poems as spaces to memorialize, illuminate, and make new. We caught up with the poet and asked him a few questions about what the day will have in store…

Tell us more about your Summer School workshop, ‘A Festival of Opposing Forces’, what can we expect?

R A V: Expect that the afternoon will be all-imagination and invention, work and the practice of making. Let’s buck the trend of workshops as solely a space of tweaking already-existing poems, or falling into a revising by-committee.

Or, taken from another direction, I want us to try and be generative, experimental and reckless.

Biochemistry—and often talk of the scientific—is generally seen as a “culture” apart from the humanities, but in my thinking, these disciplines represent ways of seeing the world—perspectives that inform and reveal each other. As Loren Eiseley argues in “The Illusion of the Two Cultures,” to exile one kind of creativity from another is a simplification.

Consider the Krebs Cycle: it’s a metabolic track that fires away inside the cells of living things. To take notice of its workings (see here &/or here) is to watch re-combinations and excitations freed from the interplay of energy and raw materials.

Which is to say, the pulses and catalytic transformations Hans Krebs described all the way back in 1937 at the University of Sheffield might have everything to do with our Wednesday of remixing, mashing together, our fearless refreshing of forms.

Your collection Reliquaria considers (among many things) the dualism of two cultures… Do you often work with oppositions in your poetry?

R A V: This tercet opens Orhan Pamuk’s Snow (he borrows it from Robert Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology”):

“Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things,/ The honest thief, the tender murderer,/ The superstitious atheist.”

And this, from Ann Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down:

“I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting frictions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one.”

So: many-sided oppositions, yes. Tensions and rivalries and refractions, complications and pluralities, always.

Because here’s the thing: as that earlier hearkening to Eiseley suggests, the limits of “dualism” and the binary of “two cultures,” troubles me.

I genuinely hope Reliquaria is far more than polarities clawing away at each other, or two preconceived aspects of an identity locked in Versus Mode. What if values and traditions redouble and duel with each other? What if faiths and canons depend on and contradict each other? What if the hybridity of “Filipino American” isn’t a paddock, or an easy “either/or?”

How do you respond when a poem that you’re writing isn’t working?

R A V: Whether with prose or poems, getting stuck means I have to move (physically, conceptually) somewhere else. I up and leave. Go off-road. Change venue. Write by hand instead of typing on a keyboard (or on a mobile phone). Switch media, genres, shuffle the texts and read.

In fact, I’m writing you from the British Library now because I felt myself mired in my sentences. Agonizing over how to best respond to your questions, I left my flat a few hours ago and, since arriving here, I’ve listened to Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s Surf at least three times on repeat, rode a circuit on the library’s escalators and elevators, stared at illuminated manuscripts and Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery). I just now attempted (and largely failed) to memorize Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty.”

I am currently watching a couple in matching elbow patches try to shoo courtyard pigeons away from a tray of crisps.

You live in both London and Brooklyn – what differences have you noticed between the UK and US poetry scenes?

R A V: I have to confess to an aversion to that word, “scene,” which, to me, sounds like a hollowing-out. Maybe it’s naïve, but I want to imagine that there are genuine, visceral, and less fashion-obsessed reasons to care about someone sharing their writing.

Don’t intend to evade the question, but I get asked this quite a bit. I suppose I’m trying to hold onto what binds our congregations together instead of what’s separate, distinct.

Are there any lesser-known poetry publications or websites you’d like to spread the word about to CAMPUS?

R A V: All of these deserve readers, subscribers, advocates:

The Offing

At Length

The Collagist








Like Starlings

The New Inquiry

The Millions

The Rumpus

Kill Screen

Your own publication, Tongue, is about to release its third biennial issue – how’s it been getting that off the ground?

R A V: This most recent issue has been a logistical challenge. And a risk. Tongue is an independent publication and one that has demanded a lot of orchestration, syncing of time zones, personal priorities, and curatorial perspectives. With the success of Issue One and Issue Two, we thought that the production ritual would get streamlined and more manageable, but things haven’t exactly turned out that way.

The editorial staff is cast all across the world (Bangkok, Brooklyn, Ithaca, London, Utah) and we’ve all been transitioning in and out of different parts of our lives—academic, personal, etc.

Our well-anchored devotion to the project is unchanged, but it feels like everything around it is in perpetual motion. That being said, Issue Three will launch very soon. That’s a promise.

What else are you working on at the minute?

R A V: This summer, traveling and reading through a stack of books are the priority. I knew that we’d be living in the U.K. for another year, so on my last trip back home to New York, I overloaded my suitcase with a haul I knew it’d be difficult to obtain here.

Have recently finished Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, so next is her The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning. And since I read many things all at once—and a clutch of poetry collections at the same time—while I’m processing that, I’ll likely be reckoning with Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, David Campos’ Furious Dusk, Jess X Chen’s From the Earthworm to the Night, and Michelle Peñaloza’s Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes.

And will I do yet another lap through the essential, just-launched BreakBeats Poets anthology? Signs point to yes.

(If new poems of my own emerge from that, all the better.)

Could you tell us a little more about how you came to teaching?

R A V: So, the origin myth: when I started at Rutgers University, I entered with a double-major in Biology and Literature, wholly intending to make my way to medical school. As I turned in my first exam booklet, however, the prospect of carving open an actual patient and grappling with life-and-death dilemmas forced the moment to its crisis, so to speak. (The specter of organic chemistry and advanced calculus didn’t help.)

I changed my academic concentration the following morning and eventually finished with a masters degree in education.

The other day I was telling someone that I have—in some form or another—been teaching without interruption for the last 14 years. That includes high school classrooms, undergraduate seminars, and all species of workshops. Kind of overwhelming how much time has passed and how quickly.

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that your sense of metre and rhyme in poetry was influenced by A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory. If you could choose three other albums that have inspired your writing, what would they be?

R A V: The Low End Theory really feels like an ur-text for me. Don’t know if there’s any other album that’s influenced my writing in such an intense way.

If you’ll allow me to re-frame the question somewhat, I want to see it through the lens of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ which was just profiled at BBC Radio 4; if The Low End Theory is the collection that’s most defined the cadences, &c. in my work, then “Prufrock” is, in many ways, the single poem that’s been most pivotal to how—and what—I write.

In that light, here are individual songs that have been ‘Prufrock’-like for me:

The Choice is Yours’ by Black Sheep

‘Paranoid Android’ by Radiohead

‘A Day in the Life’ by The Beatles.

Like-minded, but formally divergent, each features a break-down, odd mixtures and convergences, tempo and key changes. In the lead-up to Reliquaria, those tracks gave me permission to try out radical rearrangements of lines, images; it might not be going too far to say that experiments with sequences, recombinant (sonnets), and dissonance are informed by having those songs looping in my headphones.

Finally, are you planning to go to any festivals this year?

R A V: Later this year, I’m slated to travel to South Africa for the Open Book Literary Festival. I’ve never been to Cape Town before, so the chance to read poems and to lead workshops is an astonishing gift. Both that event and the next Free Verse are a long while away, so, closer to now, there’s: Poetry International at the Southbank in July and, of course, this makeshift festival of readings that I’ve been going to regularly since I’ve moved to London: Born::Free, Burn After Reading, Chill Pill, Jazz Verse Jukebox, Out-Spoken, Tongue Fu.

If you’d like to cross unlike things and opposing forces in your poems, you can book R A Villanueva’s workshop online or by calling us at the office on 0207 582 1679.

R.A.Villanueva is the author of Reliquaria, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He is also the winner of the inaugural Ninth Letter Literary Award for poetry. He formerly served as Poetry Editor of Washington Square and co-curator of Experiments & Disorders, a performance series at Dixon Place devoted to new poetic forms. Born in New Jersey, he lives in Brooklyn and London.

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“I Hate Easter on the Death Star” by JD Hancock, Flickr